Course of World War I

The Battle on the Eastern Front

Here, Russians and Serbs battled Germans, Austrians, and Turks. At the very beginning of the war, Russian forces had launched an attack into both Austria and Germany. 

  • Germans defeated Russians and regained East Prussia while Russia defeated Austria driving them deep into their region.
  • In a 17-day battle near Limanowa, Austria defeated the Russians and drove them east-ward. Two weeks later, the Austrian army pushed the Russians out of Austria-Hungary. By 1916, Russia’s war effort was near collapse.
  • In the north, a German naval fleet blocked the Baltic Sea. In the south, the Ottomans still controlled the straits leading from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. The Russian army had only one asset—its numbers. As the war raged on, fighting spread beyond Europe to Africa, as well as to Southwest and Southeast Asia. In the years after it began, the massive European conflict indeed became a world war.

Trench Warfare

Trenches stretched about 600 miles from Switzerland to the North Sea. The opposing systems of zigzag, timber-revitts, sand-bag reinforced trenches were fronted by tangles of barbed wire and scattered covered dugouts for providing shelter for troops. The heavy artillery and machine gun fire used by the opposing armies made it almost impossible to achieve any breakthrough. Most number of deaths were reported in trench warfares.

A Truly Global Conflict

  • Japan entered the war on the Allies’ side. The Ottoman Turks and later Bulgaria allied themselves with Germany and the Central Powers. Italy joined the Allies in April.
  • Dardanelles sea strait was the gateway to the Ottoman capital, Constantinople. By securing the Dardanelles, the Allies believed that they could take Constantinople, defeat the Turks, and establish a supply line to Russia. It was known as the Gallipoli campaign. British, Australian, New Zealand, and French made regular attacks but Turkish troops defended the region (German support). By December, Allies gave up. In Southwest Asia, the British helped Arab nationalists rise up against their Turkish rulers. With the help of the Arabs, Allied armies took control of Baghdad, Jerusalem, and Damascus.
  • Germany’s colonial possessions in Asia and Africa came under assault. The Japanese quickly overran German outposts in China and captured Germany’s Pacific island colonies. While France and Britain captured its territories in Africa.
  • In January 1917, to block Britain, the Germans announced that their submarines would sink without warning any ship in the waters around Britain. This policy was called unrestricted submarine warfare.
  • On May 7, 1915, a German submarine, or U-boat, had sunk the British passenger ship Lusitania. Nevertheless, the American public was outraged (rumours that Americans were killed). President Woodrow Wilson sent a strong protest to Germany. Ignoring warnings by President Wilson, German U-boats sank three American ships. In February 1917, another German action pushed the United States closer to war.
  • Americans called for war against Germany when they received a leaked telegram detailing about Germany’s promised help to Mexico to get back its territories lost to US. On April 2, 1917, United States entered the war on the side of the Allies.

Some interim consequences

Governments told factories what to produce and how much. Numerous facilities were converted to munitions factories. Nearly every able-bodied civilian was put to work. Unemployment in many European countries nearly disappeared. Governments turned to rationing. Governments also suppressed anti-war activity—sometimes forcibly. They censored news about the war.

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The Allies Win the War

US entry brought the balance in the Allies’ favour.

  • By March 1917,  civil unrest in Russia (beginning of Revolution)—due in part to war-related shortages of food and fuel—had brought the czar’s government to the brink of collapse.  Czar Nicholas, abdicated his throne. Provisional government was established which continued fighting the war. However, war-weary Russian army refused to fight any longer. In November 1917, Communist leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin seized power. He offered Germany a truce. In March 1918, Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed which ended the war between them. The treaty made Germany to surrender areas including Finland, Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
  • Withdrawal of Russia allowed Germany to focus on the Western Front. They almost reached Paris using their aggressive war tactics. By this time, however, the German military had weakened. They had exhausted men and supplies alike. Sensing this weakness, the Allies launched a counterattack.

Allied forces began to advance steadily toward Germany. First the Bulgarians and then the Ottoman Turks surrendered. In October, a revolution in Austria-Hungary brought that empire to an end. In Germany, soldiers mutinied, and the public turned on the Kaiser who was forced to step down. Germany declared itself a republic. A representative of the new German government signed an armistice, or an agreement to stop fighting. On November 11, World War I came to an end.

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